Incommensurate Nostalgias: Changin’ Times in Watchmen

The following is the proposal I sent for a chapter in a forthcoming book on music and contemporary fiction. I have another month and a half to finish it and that work will form a good deal of my Page a Day project until then.

If you are into Watchmen, also see my post on the film’s opening credits here.

This essay argues that Watchmen‘s numerous references to music, both real and fictional, demonstrate the manner in which nostalgia for the past constrains one’s ability to imagine the future and, ultimately, leads to claims about history and the future that are incommensurate with one another.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen (1986 – 87) is framed by two Bob Dylan lyrics. The first, from “Desolation Row” (1965), contributes the first chapter’s title and concluding epigraph: “At midnight, all the agents and superhuman crew, go out and round up everyone who knows more than they do.” The second, from “The Times The Are a-Changin’”(1963), contributes copy to a fake magazine advertisement at the conclusion of the penultimate chapter: “The times they are a’changing.” At first glance, the lines from “Desolation Row” appear to have a mere literal connection to the novel, as the chapter in which they appear is largely devoted to introducing primary characters and what they know of an ostensible plot to kill them. However, these words (which Moore and Gibbon directly attribute to Dylan), when compared to those from “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (which are not attributed to Dylan) and to other musical references in the text, reveal Watchmen‘s concern with the interaction of historical knowledge and nostalgia.

Watchmen interrogates the notion of historical progress by demonstrating how individual characters react to progress as individuals. “Progress” here is not a world getting “better,” but rather to an inexorable flow of time, a neutral movement forward, regardless whether it involves liberal or reactionary politics. Watchmen‘s characters long for better futures, but these futures are based on their individual understandings of and longings for different pasts. For example: the Comedian longs for a return to the unbridled violence of the Vietnam War, Dr. Manhattan to a time when he still desired his own humanity (a meta-nostalgia), Ozymandias to an ancient past of glory (and, notably, slavery, although he fails to acknowledge as much). For each of these characters, nostalgia becomes a motivation for progress, but progress to past situations that are incommensurate with one another.

These characters fail to understand the significance of Dylan’s lyrics, “The times they are a-changin’”, which are reduced here to mere slogan. Given its release in the early 1960s, in retrospect the song appears to be a battle cry for a generation of radicals and a warning to conservative forces in the United States (the same conservative forces that have largely “won” by the 1985 of the novel’s world). However, though the novel makes clear that there is much to recommend this reading, a broader and better reading reveals the neutrality of change with regard to individual or collective desires. Can there be any wonder, given this reading of the song, that Moore and Gibbon would juxtapose it with “Desolation Row,” a song whose images defy any coherent reading or totalizing explanation, a song that serves even more explicitly as a palimpsest for individual musings and desires, a song whose lack of signification implies a nihilism so at odds with the simplistic promise of “The Times The Are a-Changin’”?

In addition to a consideration Watchmen‘s references to Dylan, this essay will also discuss the concert, by fictional bands Pale Horse and Kristallnacht, that provides the background to much of the novels plot. For Moore and Gibbon, these bands and their drug-abusing followers, are the legacy of a counterculture that could not sustain its momentum, whose only connection to the past is a drug-use that is no longer tied to revolution but only to nihilism.

Incommensurate Nostalgias: Changin’ Times in Watchmen

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5 Responses to “Incommensurate Nostalgias: Changin’ Times in Watchmen”

  1. […] « Incommensurate Nostalgias: Changin’ Times in Watchmen […]

  2. […] following is part of my Page a Day project and some rough writing from my forthcoming essay on Watchmen, music, and […]

  3. […] following is part of my Page a Day project and some rough writing from my forthcoming essay on Watchmen, music, and […]

  4. […] following is part of my Page a Day project and some rough writing from my forthcoming essay on Watchmen, music, and […]

  5. […] following is part of my Page a Day project and some rough writing from my forthcoming essay on Watchmen, music, and […]

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